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Little Red Riding Hood Gets A 21st Century Attitude

She's been visiting grandma since 1697, when her story was first published in a French anthology of children's stories. Now we have a 21st century version, but before we go there, here's a little review:

Little Red Riding Hood — First Version

In the earliest version, she meets the wolf in the woods, the wolf scrambles to Grandma's house, eats grandma, gets into grandma's bed and when Little Red arrives, the wolf gobbles her too. Nobody survives — except the wolf. This is not the gentlest of bedtime stories.

Little Red — Unchewed Version

A generation later, the Grimm Brothers reworked the tale and made it, well...less grim. In their version, grandma is eaten whole (like Jonah in the bible), same for Little Red, then the wolf falls asleep and begins to snore contentedly. Those snores catch the attention of a local hunter who looks in, and seeing a wolf dressed in grandma's nightgown, decides what's called for is a quick bit of surgery. So with a hunting knife, he opens the wolf's intestine, and releases Grandma and Little Red, unchewed, back into the world. That's a lot nicer.

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Little Red — Psycho Version

But we're not done. According to science writer Martin Gardner, in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, psychoanalysts — chiefly Bruno Bettelheim — took Little Red and gave us yet another reading, this one fraught with subconscious urges. Little Red, it seems, was unconsciously seeking to be seduced by her father. The wolf, Bettleheim declares, is a father figure, and the wolf's eating of Little Red represents the seduction. Bettleheim writes an 18 page essay suggesting that Little Red seems more than passingly aware of the wolf's desire and anatomy: "What great arms you have grandma!" "The better to embrace you, my child." "What great legs you have!" "The better to run with, my child." (So deep down, she knows what's really going on.)

Little Red — Feminist Version

But wait a few years, and the tale turns yet again, this time taking a more feminist bent. In James Thurber's delightful version Little Red is a hard-boiled no-nonsense dame. She knows instantly that's not her grandma in the bed, "for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge." The moment she sees "grandma" according to Thurber, "the little girl took an automatic out of her pocket and shot the wolf dead." The moral being: "It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be."

Little Red — Ladies' Room Version

All in all, wrote Professor Jack Zipes in his 1993 collection The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood,there are 147 published versions of the story. They come from China, Europe, in all flavors, from religious themes to bathroom humor (In one of them, Little Red escapes by telling the Wolf she has to go the Ladies' Room.)

By now Little Red Riding Hood has taken so many turns, you would think there's no new way to tell it fresh. Ah, but you would be wrong.

There's a newish one — three years old — from Swedish designer Tomas Nilsson. He says this is an art school assignment; if I were his teacher, I'd give him a gold star, because his version, pretty much the Grimm Brothers tale-- is very much of our time; it's a sales infographic. Little Red has no pulse, no subconscious, no adorable-ness: she is a PowerPoint display. Same for Grandma, the wolf, the hunter and everything they touch; everything is priced, weighed, measured and then, joyously, set to music by a band called Slagmalsklubben.

So Little Red Riding Hood is back! And this time, she's a billboard (Looking for a hunter's outfit? A VW bus? Pain medicine? A gun? Like what you see? Here's how to buy...) She's not cute any more, not vulnerable, not a vixen, she's a Google-creature, a selling opportunity. Who says we're not making progress?

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Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.
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